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Andrew Litton Throws His Hat in Pacific Symphony Ring

REVIEW: The American conductor leads an authoritative Shostakovich; Alessio Bax plays Beethoven.


Andrew Litton leads the Pacific Symphony in what is likely his audition for the conductor spot being vacated by Carl St.Clair. Photo courtesy of Pacific Symphony/Doug Gifford
 

Candidate number five for the position of the Pacific Symphony’s music directorship showed up Thursday night at Segerstrom Concert Hall to lead a pleasing program and display his wares.


Andrew Litton is his name and he is probably the best known of the guest conductors this season. The American musician, 64, has already had a distinguished and many-faceted career, including stints heading the orchestras in Dallas, Bergen, Norway, and Bournemouth, England, all well documented on records. The current music director of the New York City Ballet also has some interesting details in his resume that would make him seem perfect for the job here, including plenty of experience conducting opera in semi-staged performance, something which Carl St.Clair has made a focus of in recent years.


Meanwhile, this week the Pacific Symphony announced plans for next season, which are very much focused on St.Clair in his 35th, and probably his last, go-round as music director. (The opera will be Das Rheingold.) Whether we will have a music director-designate by then or not remains an open question.


Litton’s main calling card on Thursday was Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 5, which he prefaced with the obligatory talk from the stage. His was of more than usual interest, though. As a young man Litton actually met Shostakovich. Then, a few years later, when he was an assistant conductor at the National Symphony, he worked on the Symphony No. 5 with Shostakovich’s close friend and colleague, the cellist and conductor Mstislav Rostropovich, who schooled him on, among other things, the proper slow tempo for the concluding section of the last movement.


In the event, Litton led a commanding account of the well known work, filled with telling detail and emotional heft. The piece seemed to unwind in a single, connected line of drama, so well thought out were its tempos, colors and emphases. Instrumental balances were nicely calculated, too, so that one heard into the grains of this score, even when it blared.


Litton seemed to have a special rapport with the strings, who played with a notable intensity and unity. He used his body and arms not to merely direct them, but to mimic their rhythm and articulation so that there was no question what he wanted. The overall polish of the orchestra’s playing was most welcome as well.


Andrew Litton leads the Pacific Symphony in a concert on Feb. 22. Photos courtesy of Pacific Symphony/Doug Gifford

 

Before intermission, the Italian pianist Alessio Bax soloed in Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 3. His was a crisp and punchy reading, every phrase firmly landed, every finger vigorously applied. A little cascade of notes would launch like a rocket, trills would snap like piranhas. Phrases dashed with plenty of pop, an engine revving high in low gear. No mere jabber, though, Bax proved an unselfish chamber musician when required and always looked after balanced hands and textures.


Litton and the orchestra supported him with modesty, care and warmth, paying particular attention to dynamics and attacks.


Litton, who is also an accomplished pianist, then joined Bax for the encore, a zesty and witty run-through of the piano four hands version of Brahms’ Hungarian Dance No. 5, complete with the conductor putting his head on Bax’s shoulder during one romantic phrase.



Andrew Litton and Alessio Bax perform an encore together during the concert on Feb. 22, 2024. Photos courtesy of Pacific Symphony/Doug Gifford

 

The program began with The White Peacock by Charles Tomlinson Griffes, a lovely bit of American Impressionism from 1919, given poised and lush expression. At six minutes in length, and slow, it seemed slightly too slender as a curtain raiser, though.


In all, it was another impressive concert from a guest conductor this season. It’s a testament to this orchestra and to St.Clair that such a talented list of suitors is lining up to take over the helm. 


Beethoven and Shostakovich

Andrew Litton, conductor

Alessio Bax, piano

Pacific Symphony


Griffes: The White Peacock

Beethoven: Piano Concerto No. 3

Shostakovich: Symphony No. 5


When: 8 p.m. Feb 22 - Feb. 24

Where: Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall, 600 Town Center Dr, Costa Mesa

Cost: Remaining seats available between $99 - $225

Contact: pacificsymphony.org



 

Classical music coverage at Culture OC is supported in part by a grant from the Rubin Institute for Music Criticism. Culture OC makes all editorial decisions.



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